Beatrice and Virgil (Martel)

Beatrice and Virgil
Yann Martel, 2010
Random House
224 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400069262

Fate takes many forms.

When Henry receives a letter from an elderly taxidermist, it poses a puzzle that he cannot resist. As he is pulled further into the world of this strange and calculating man, Henry becomes increasingly involved with the lives of a donkey and a howler monkey—named Beatrice and Virgil—and the epic journey they undertake together.

With all the spirit and originality that made Life of Pi so beloved, this brilliant new novel takes the reader on a haunting odyssey. On the way Martel asks profound questions about life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 25, 1963
Where—Salamanca, Spain
Education—B.A., Trent University, Ontario
Awards—Booker Prize, 2002; Hugh MacLennan Prize, 
   Quebec Writers’ Federation
 Currently—Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 of peripatetic Canadian parents. He grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico, and has continued travelling as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. Martel refers to his travels as, “seeing the same play on a whole lot of different stages.”

After studying philosophy at Trent University and while doing various odd jobs—tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard—he began to write. In addition to Life of Pi, Martel is the prize-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and of Self, a novel, both published internationally. Yann has been living from his writing since the age of 27. He divides his time between yoga, writing and volunteering in a palliative care unit. Yann Martel lives in Montreal.

Sometime in the early 1990s, Yann Martel stumbled across a critique in the New York Times Review of Books by John Updike that captured his curiosity. Although Updike's response to Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats was fairly icy and indifferent, the premise immediately intrigued Martel. According to Martel, Max and the Cats was, "as far as I can remember...about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther." Whether or not the story was as uninspiring as Updike had indicated in his review, Martel was both fascinated by this premise and frustrated that he had not come up with it himself.

Ironically, Martel's account of the plot of Max and the Cats wasn't completely accurate. In fact, in Scliar's novel, Max Schmidt did not belong to a family of zookeepers—he was the son of furrier. Furthermore, he did not emigrate from Berlin to Brazil with his family as the result of a failing zoo, but was forced to flee Hamburg after his lover's husband sells him out to the Nazi secret police. So, this plot that so enthralled Martel—which he did not pursue for several years because he assumed Moacyr Scliar had already tackled it—was more his own than he had thought.

Meanwhile, Martel managed to write and publish two books: a collection of short stories titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios in 1993 and a novel about gender confusion called Self in 1996. Both books sold only moderately well, further frustrating the writer. In an effort to collect his thoughts and refresh his creativity, he took a trip to India, first spending time in bustling Bombay. However, the overcrowded city only furthered Martel's feelings of alienation and dissolution. He then decided to move on to Matheran, a section near Bombay but without that city's dense population. In this peaceful hill station overlooking the city, Martel began revisiting an idea he had not considered in some time, the premise he had unwittingly created when reading Updike's review in the New York Times Review of Books. He developed the idea even further away from Max and the Cats. While Scliar's novel was an extended holocaust allegory, Martel envisioned his story as a witty, whimsical, and mysterious meditation on zoology and theology. Unlike Max Schmidt, Pi Patel would, indeed, be the son of a zookeeper. Martel would, however, retain the shipwrecked-with-beasts theme from Max and the Cats. During an ocean exodus from India to Canada, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with such unlikely shipmates as a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The resulting novel, Life of Pi, became the smash-hit for which Martel had been longing. Selling well over a million copies and receiving the accolades of Book Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and, yes, the New York Times Review of Books, Life of Pi has been published in over 40 countries and territories, in over 30 languages. It is currently in production by Fox Studios with a script by master-of-whimsy Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children; Amélie) and directorial duties to be handled by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

Martel is now working on his third novel, a bizarrely allegorical adventure about a donkey and a monkey that travel through a fantastical world...on a shirt. Well, at least no one will ever accuse him of borrowing that premise from any other writer.

From a 2002 Barnes & Noble interview:

Life of Pi is not Yann Martel's first work to be adapted for the screen. His short story "Manners of Dying" was made into a motion picture by fellow Canadian resident Jeremy Peter Allen in 2004.

• When he isn't penning modern masterpieces, Martel spends much of his time volunteering in a palliative care unit.

• When asked what book was most influential to his career as a writer, here's what he said: 

I would say Le Petit Chose, by the French writer Alphonse Daudet. It was the first book to make me cry. I was around ten years old. It made me see how powerful words could be, how much we could see and feel through mere black jottings on a page. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Mr. Martel ’s new book, Beatrice and Virgil, unfortunately, is every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching. It, too, features animals as central characters. It, too, involves a figure who in some respects resembles the author. It, too, is written in deceptively light, casual prose.... [H]is borrowings from...[Samuel] Beckett...serve no persuasive end. Rather they are another awkward element in this disappointing and often perverse novel.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Martel’s latest novel demonstrates the same gift for vivid description and wholehearted feeling, but it’s a lot more resistant to summary.... He appears to want to embrace difficulty while retaining all the readers who loved the easy narrative of Life of Pi. Although his ambition is admirable, the literary complexity and the simplicity of feeling Martel is aiming for don’t comfortably mesh. Beatrice and Virgil has its rewards, but the frustrations are what stick in the mind.
Robert Hanks - New York Times Book Review

Beatrice and Virgil is so dull, so misguided, so pretentious that only the prospect of those millions of "Pi" fans could secure the interest of major publishers and a multimillion-dollar advance. This short tale runs into trouble almost from its first precious page with an autobiographical portrait of the thinly disguised author.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Dark but divine.... This novel might just be a masterpiece about the Holocaust.... Martel brilliantly guides the reader from the too-sunny beginning into the terrifying darkness of the old man's shop and Europe's past. Everything comes into focus by the end, leaving the reader startled, astonished, and moved.
USA Today

Brilliant...with this short, crisply written, many-layered book, Martel has once again demonstrated that nothing tells the truth like fiction.... Another philosophical winner.
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Those spell-bound by Man Booker prize-winning Life of Pi will find much to love in Yann Martel’s new work of fiction.... In Beatrice and Virgil, Martel again evokes the power of allegory, this time to address the legacy of the Holocaust—as well as the pleasure of fairy tales. At the heart of this novel are questions about truth and illusion, responsibility and innocence, and Martel is able to employ Beatrice and Virgil as sympathetic, nuanced vehicles for his vision. Beatrice and Virgil is a thought-provoking delight.
Marie Claire

If Beatrice and Virgil were a piece of music, it would be an extended fugue, beginning so quietly as to be almost inaudible, and culminating in a moment of overwhelming noise followed by silence....There is indeed no exit from Beatrice and Virgil, not even when the book culminates in its final moment of overwhelming crescendo, as Martel’s characters find themselves trapped in an eruption of hell-like flames. Like the echoing themes of a fugue, all the components of the Martel’s novel fit tightly together, leading up to one ultimate moment of terror.
Harvard Crimson

Megaselling Life of Pi author Martel addresses, in this clunky metanarrative, the violent legacy of the 20th century with an alter ego: Henry L'Hôte, an author with a very Martel-like CV who, after a massively successful first novel, gives up writing. Henry and his wife, Sarah, move to a big city (“Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin”), where Henry finds satisfying work in a chocolatería and acting in an amateur theater troupe. All is well until he receives a package containing a short story by Flaubert and an excerpt from an unknown play. His curiosity about the sender leads him to a taxidermist named Henry who insists that Henry-the-author help him write a play about a monkey and a donkey. Henry-the-author is at first intrigued by sweet Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, her monkey companion, but the animals' increasing peril draws Henry into the taxidermist's brutally absurd world. Martel's aims are ambitious, but the prose is amateur and the characters thin, the coy self-referentiality grates, and the fable at the center of the novel is unbearably self-conscious. When Martel (rather energetically) tries to tug our heartstrings, we're likely to feel more manipulated than moved.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Martel’s mesmerizing Man Booker Prize–winning Life of Pi (2002) has become a cult classic, its richness of depth and meaning belying the startling basic story line of a young Indian man stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days. So it is with Martel’s latest novel, also a fable-type story with iceberg-deep dimensions reaching far below the surface of its general premise. —Brad Hooper

Whimsy takes a deadly serious turn in a novel that will enchant some readers and exasperate others. The Canadian author's previous novel (Life of Pi, 2001) won the Man Booker Prize, became a critically lauded bestseller and made legions of fans eager for a follow-up. Here it is, a meta-fictional shell game about a novelist who has experienced the same sort of success as Martel by writing a similar sort of animal-filled book, who attempts a follow-up (about the Holocaust) that mixes fact and fiction in a manner that advance readers find unsatisfying and who thus stops writing. His story reads something like a fable, since for the longest time the protagonist has only one name, Henry, and he and his wife move to a city that remains unidentified, though the narrative suggests it could be one of many. Instead of writing, Henry becomes involved with a chocolate shop and a theater troupe, and then he receives a package from a reader. The most accommodating bestselling author ever, Henry answers all his mail and goes to great lengths to track down the sender of this package, which contains a short story by Flaubert, a play with two characters-the title characters of this novel-and a plea for help. Henry's quest leads him to a mysterious taxidermist, also named Henry, whose shop seems to contain "all of creation stuffed into one large room," and who plies his trade in homage to Flaubert-"to bear witness." Uh-oh, allegory alert! Like a Russian doll, the novel contains parables within parables, as the play's Beatrice and Virgil (from Dante, of course) turn out to be a donkey and a monkey, and their dialogue sounds like Aesop filtered through Samuel Beckett ("This road must lead somewhere"/ "Is it somewhere we want to be?"). Henry agrees to help with the play that has been the taxidermist's life's work, thus breaking the novelist's writer's block, though at a great price. As Henry asks Henry, "Symbolic of what?"
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What is Beatrice & Virgil about?

2. Discuss the main characters. What are Henry and the taxidermist like? How are they different from one another, and in what ways are they similar? What are Beatrice and Virgil like?

3. What do you think of Henry’s original idea for his book? Do you agree with him that the Holocaust needs to be remembered in different ways, beyond the confines of “historical realism”? Why, or why not?

4. What is the importance of self-reflexivity in the novel? For example, does Henry remind you of Yann Martel? How does Beatrice & Virgil relate to the book that Henry wanted to publish originally? Who writes the story?

5. How would you compare Beatrice & Virgil to Life of Pi? How do Yann Martel’s aims in the two novels differ, and how does he go about achieving them?

6. Close to the start of the book, Henry (the writer) says, “A book is a part of speech. At the heart of mine is an incredibly upsetting event that can survive only in dialogue” (p. 12). Why would this be the case? How does it influence the form of the book we are reading?

7. Describe the role Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” plays in the novel.

8. Why doesn’t the waiter at the cafe address the taxidermist?

9. How do you explain Henry’s wife’s reaction to the taxidermist and his workshop?

10. How do you feel about the play A 20th-Century Shirt? Could it be performed? Does it remind you of anything? What role does it play in the book?

11. Who are Beatrice and Virgil in literature? Which other books and writers do you find influencing this one, and with what effects?

12. What moral challenges does Beatrice & Virgil present the reader with? What does it leave you thinking about?

13. What are the different kinds of theatre, acting and performance in Beatrice & Virgil and what do they add to the book?

14. What is the significance of names in the novel, especially Henry’s full name?

15. How is writing like or unlike taxidermy in the book?

16. What role do Erasmus and Mendelssohn play in the novel, and why does it matter?

17. What is your favourite part of Beatrice & Virgil?

18. How do the two parts of the book relate? How do they connect to Henry’s original plan for his book? Or, to put it another way: why “Games for Gustav”?

19. What do Henry’s non-literary activities—music lessons, waiting tables—tell us about him as a character? What else do they add to the book?

20. How is Henry changed by the events of the novel? How does this relate to Beatrice and Virgil having “no reason to change” (p. 151) over the course of their play?

21. Beatrice & Virgil stresses compound words, new words, overvalued words, words that are “cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field” (p. 88)—what are some of the key words in the book, and how are words important as a theme in the novel?

22. How do Henry and Henry help each other write?

23. What is the significance of 68 Nowolipki Street?

24. Does Beatrice & Virgil itself aim to “make the Holocaust portable” for modern memory? Does it succeed in doing so? How does the book’s ending change things?

25. What is the significance of the word “Aukitz” in the novel, and in the book design?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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